Hidden Figures

Any movie is a good movie that sheds cinematic light on women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson who have been overlooked by history though they have made great contributions to events central to our national identity. Johnson, Vaughn, and Jackson were essential members of the team of people who put Americans in space and on the moon and got them back safely. One of these women, Katherine Johnson, did what no one else could do.

Hidden Figures begins with her story. We first meet Katherine as a precocious little girl. It’s a kind of superhero  origin story, but her powers are mathematical instead of supernatural. Then we jump ahead in time, and Katherine is an adult sitting in a broken down car staring wistfully into the distance. A police officer soon drives up, and, for a moment, we think this might become another kind of contemporary story – one of institutional violence against black persons. Oh yes, Katherine and her intelligent friends are African Americans, and their race is as much a factor in their lack of professional advancement as their gender. They’re the kind of double-minority that struggles hardest to get ahead in American society. Hidden Figures shows how they had to be smarter and work harder than anyone else to advance.

And don’t worry, that police officer ends up helping them get to work. He doesn’t abuse them. Hidden Figures isn’t the kind of movie where racism prevails. It’s the kind of movie where prejudiced people realize their bias and change, and the entire community, indeed, the entire American society, is better off as a result.

Hidden Figures is a feel-good movie if ever there was one. It points to the best of who we are, of who we can become when we are willing to take each individual as an individual and give them a chance to succeed. Hidden Figures is a balm in troubled times, when we seem more eager to enfranchise and empower bigotry than we are to build a just and civil society. Hidden Figures is encouraging.

It’s also anchored by strong acting throughout the cast. Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, and Mahershala Ali are especially good. Henson and Ali are quiet characters, but they excel at imbuing each moment with gravity. Monae is electric. She reminded me of Madonna’s delightful turn as “All the Way” Mae in A League of Their Own. Monae obviously knows how to command your attention, and at times, it feels as if the camera has to force itself to watch other performers.

The fact that Hidden Figures gives due attention to each character is a testament to the good intuitions of director Theodore Melfi and editor Peter Teschner. There’s nothing flashy about this movie. Sure, the filmmakers could have added a little flair to their storytelling, but instead they get out of the way and let us see these remarkable women.

As the film ended, I wanted to know more about these mathematicians. I wanted to encourage young girls in my life to never let anyone make them think they are worth any less than any man, that their brains are as valuable as their bodies, that their spirits are worth more still.